Agile Coaching Is (All) About People

“You’ve not only made things better, you have truly changed our lives.”

These are the words that every agile coach yearns to hear from the people they work with. While it’s always a goal of mine to change the mindsets of clients, I have had mixed results over my five years as an agile coach. On one six-month engagement with a client I’ll call Prosperity, though, something transformative took place. I’ve spent some time since then thinking about what made those six months so successful and why Prosperity continues to push the envelope of what it is capable of doing as an organization.

Agile Coaching: What Makes It Better With Some Clients?

At first, I thought it was all around the process. Prosperity, like many other clients, started out wanting to “learn agile.” Teach us Scrum, help us start out right, and let’s roll out agile across all teams, were there primary requests. So I started with what I considered at the time to be a “perfect” way to rollout Scrum to teams—a two-week “Sprint 0” approach of training, workshops and preparation for sprints that is consistent with every team. I have used this approach with many clients, with varying results. At Prosperity, though, the teams really took to it; they loved it and felt it was going to transform the way they worked. While I can say that all the teams at past clients benefited to a certain degree and were ready to work in sprints at the end of the rollout, I definitely didn’t get the feedback that this was somehow life changing. In fact, from some clients, I got the exact opposite feedback— that this was too process heavy. While all clients saw the results of going through this “kick off process,” none of them had embraced the change to the degree that Prosperity had. So that wasn’t it.

My next thought was that it must be the all around coaching style I had used with Prosperity. I had tried a more directive approach at the start with Prosperity then switched to a more supportive, kind of “back of the room” approach once they started to “get it”—maybe that was the reason why they had responded so well. While I’m not one to usually want to be more directive and in control, I hypothesized that perhaps the key to success at a client is to start out more directive and then back off when the teams are ready. To test my theory, at another client, I tried to be much more directive from the beginning. Bad idea! I almost got fired from the client with that approach.

So if it was not the process, or a specific coaching style, what was it that made my six months with Prosperity so special? Would I ever be able to see the same success elsewhere? The prospect of never having that level of success with a client again made me question whether I should continue being an agile coach. Maybe it was nothing I had done, but just working with the right people with the right attitude. Perhaps it’s not at all about coaching, but about people being willing and able to change given their sheer desire to do something different.

Because that was such a depressing thought, I delved a bit deeper into everything that had happened during my time with Prosperity, both on their end and on mine. In the end, I did find some great lessons on coaching that I believe will help anyone who wants to bring out the best in people.

Agile Coaching Lessons Learned

Lesson #1: Take time to get to know people. Even before I came onsite with Prosperity, I had numerous conversations with some of the key leaders who were bringing me into their organization. I truly took the time to get to know them, how they work, what they value, and what success would look like. In these conversations, they were also getting comfortable with me and were seeing value through the discussion. These weren’t one-sided interviews where I asked all the questions but dialogues, where we discussed thoughts and ideas. Once I came onsite, I spend about 30-60 minutes with leaders of every key team or department within the organization. While I was exhausted after two weeks of these discussions, I was also energized because I truly felt I had established some real connections. By the time I started to engage teams, I already felt I knew most of the team members and that they were comfortable with how I was going to help their teams get better.

Lesson #2: Appreciate their journey and how they got there. I remember many years ago, I started with a new client. During my first week there I observed a team in their planning session. I sat near the back of the room and wrote down my many observations. I was so proud of all the many things that I was finding to talk with the ScrumMaster about! After the planning meeting, I mentioned to the ScrumMaster that I was going to write up my thoughts and get back to him to have a discussion afterwards. I sent him a very lengthy email with all the things he should consider doing differently with the teams and ways to improve the process. The response was not pretty. His response to me: “We need to talk about this.” Never a good sign! When we got together to talk, he started by saying, “You don’t know a thing about us, why we have tweaked the process, why we are doing the things we are doing. So why do you have the right to say we are doing everything wrong?” Ouch! It took a long time to repair that relationship.

Unfortunately, I haven’t always learned from that lesson and tend to come into teams with all guns blazing only to shoot myself in the foot. At Prosperity, though, I did a much better job. I showed true sympathy and respect for their journey so far. They had tried agile before, but with limited success. I asked questions to learn about what had worked and what hadn’t. I demonstrated that I appreciated what they had tried to do in the past, their wins as well as their challenges. I also had honest conversations around their thoughts on agile—fears, uncertainty, doubts, questions, concerns, etc.—to understand where they were coming from but also to show them that I was not trying to change or fix them but truly cared about where they were in their journey.

Lesson #3: Show them a world of possibilities. I used to get frustrated with coming into organizations as an external coach and having clients think of me as the “Scrum trainer,” with the focus on getting the teams formal training as a measure of success. I realized in my conversations with Prosperity, I had begun to paint a picture about what an agile organization looks like. Not with the adoption and training around practices, but around the results that they could see with such an adoption. By painting a picture of what the organization could become, they started to see the picture for themselves and wanted to be a part of such an organization. Looking back, most of my conversations were around “what could be.” They soon realized that there was much more around changing mindset, behaviors, organizational structure, leadership styles, tools, infrastructure, team dynamics and other areas that also needed to happen. By seeing a possible future and appreciating what it would take to get there, people started to find their own ways of owning the vision and making it happen.

Lesson #4: Create heroes that will change the world (and their organization). A few months after I left Prosperity, the president took the time to write up a very nice recommendation. In the recommendation, he had told me that he and others had nicknamed me “the General.” At first, I was taken aback with association—I thought that I had moved on from a directive role to something else while there. To me, being called a General made me think of some guy that stood on a pedestal barking orders to everyone. I didn’t want to be that guy. So, I asked him about the nickname and my concerns about it. His response surprised me, “No, that’s not how I view a General at all. In fact, it is quite different. To us, we saw you as the guy that could see the overall big picture of the organization, where we were going. You helped us move towards the same goals instead of competing goals within parts of the organization. You helped us gain the capabilities to take on the battle ourselves by creating each of us as an agent of change. You wanted us to be successful and we in turn wanted to show you that we could be. Calling you General is our way of showing the highest level of respect for what you did for us.”

Wow! That’s enough positive feedback to make you want to keep going no matter how tough it gets, right? I then realized that if the focus on agile transformation across the organization is strictly around processes, I would fail as a coach. Instead, agile coaching has to be about transformation of people—helping them gather the courage and ability to be a hero and an agent of change within the organization. Get enough heroes and it becomes a viral effect that others want to be a part. Have enough change agents and not only will the changes stick but people will continue to find ways to keep the organization focused on learning and improving.

Lesson #5: Develop a partner relationship. This is not necessarily a separate lesson, but more the ultimate outcome as an agile coach. The agile coaching role is still very new or unknown to many organizations. While I have tried to describe the relationship between a trusted agile coach and an organization, you really have to build the relationship through the other actions mentioned above. If you are truly going to have the relationship necessary to help people transform, you have to gain their trust and respect. They have to see you as not just a trainer but a guide. They have to feel you care about them and want to help them succeed. They need to understand where they can go and feel you can lead them in the right direction in their journey. In many ways, I feel like I have never left this client. I am still cheering from the sidelines, interested in the people and the success that they are having. By becoming a partner in their journey, a part of me will always be involved.